New Poll: Access to Safe Drinking Water a Top Priority

This blog was cowritten with Brenda Santoyo, Senior Policy Analyst at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

Illinoisans wake up each morning with heavy hearts and busy minds. Grocery prices and household expenses are skyrocketing and climate change is altering the status quo to a new reality many aren’t prepared to face. The country can feel polarized and divided over many issues, but we can all remain united on the importance of safe drinking water. New NRDC polling data found that access to safe drinking water is a top priority for Americans regardless of race, age, gender, and political affiliation.  

This new polling data reaffirms what many of us already know: access to safe drinking water is fundamental for thriving communities. While this may sound like common sense, access to safe drinking water remains an issue for many communities. According to the poll, 59 percent of Americans believe that ensuring access to safe drinking water for all Americans should be one of the top priorities for the federal government, and 91 percent believe it is a high priority.  In Illinois, the state with the most lead service lines in the country, 96 percent support requiring water utilities to replace all lead pipes in the next ten years.

Taylor Glascock for NRDC

Despite such overwhelming support from the American people and Illinoisans, replacement of lead service lines in places like Chicago continue to move at a “glacial pace,” compromising the integrity of our drinking water. Americans are worried about exposure to toxic chemicals from the water they drink at home, including lead from lead service lines. With seven in ten Americans nationwide saying lead pipes in U.S. drinking water are either a crisis or major problem, elected officials have ample opportunity and support to act to prevent a drinking water crisis in their community.  

Across gender, race, age and political ideology, nine in 10 Americans support updating an EPA rule that would require water utilities to replace all of their lead pipes within the next ten years. Chicago, which mandated the use of lead service lines until they were banned in 1986, has nearly 400,000 lead service lines and nearly 120,000 of unknown composition that should be assumed to be lead until confirmed otherwise. The city has the most lead service lines of any city in the country, putting too many residents at risk of drinking lead-contaminated water.

Chicago launched the Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program, but the endless hurdles to qualify for free replacement feels as comparably burdensome to buying bottled water to avoid your own tap water (or purchasing an expensive filter system). When full replacement of lead pipes depends on a household’s ability to pay part of the cost, those who can least afford the added expense—disproportionately people of color— will be left behind, without access to safe water from their taps. Critically, the new poll results shows that 94 percent support and 71 percent strongly support requiring water utilities to pay the total cost of replacing lead service lines, without a cost-share requirement for individual customers whose lines are replaced.   

People of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted when it comes to access to safe drinking water, and Illinois is no exception. According to a Metropolitan Planning Council study, 65 percent of the state’s Black and Latinx residents, and 42 percent of Illinois’s Asian-American and Native American populations, are living in communities containing 94 percent of the state’s known lead service lines. Meanwhile, only 30 percent of the state’s white population is living in those same communities.  

Environmental justice communities throughout Chicago are not only faced with the burden of lead but also the accumulating environmental threats of legacy pollution, industrial zoning, and flawed permitting that jeopardize the health and well-being of residents of these neighborhoods. For far too long, environmental justice communities have been exposed to pollution and toxins in the air they breathe, the soil in their backyards, and the water at their taps.

In Chicago, as in many other cities and states, they are also more likely to face water bills that they cannot afford and water shutoffs when they cannot pay their bills on time. It is time we remediate all of that. Polling data reaffirms what we know is necessary—with a substantial majority, 9 in 10 respondents agree that investments to replace lead pipes should be "targeted to communities that have been underserved for far too long."

Although the distribution of lead service lines in Chicago is throughout the city across all neighborhoods, a recent series of tests by The Guardian found over 1,000 homes in Chicago testing over the federal action level of 15 parts per billion or greater. There is no safe level of lead in drinking water. 

There’s still good news. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directs $15 billion of federal funding to states through the EPA to replace Lead service lines. Mayor Lightfoot's $16.4 billion budget includes a $336 million “Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation” loan to fund lead service line replacement.  

But in true form, federal and state governments are taking longer than we’d like to ensure all Illinoisans and Americans have safe drinking water right now. According to state law, Chicago has 50 years to get the lead pipes out—a lengthy timeframe that Mayor Lightfoot lobbied for. But there has been little progress, and city officials have a lot of work to do to even meet that five decade timeframe. While the first steps may take longer than we’d like to see, politicians should be emboldened that the public will stand by them when they take swift action and get to work on a more reasonable replacement schedule and establish other measures that will protect public health.

Some politicians are taking action. Recently, 15 U.S. senators asked the EPA to lower the levels of lead allowable in drinking water, require all lead pipes to be replaced in the next decade and, ensure support for low-income neighborhoods so they can benefit equally from remediation efforts. Governor Pritzker signed a law that not only mandates the full replacement of lead service lines but also bans dangerous partial lead service line replacement, a practice that could increase lead in drinking water. And, recognizing that we cannot ensure access to safe drinking water without ensuring bills are affordable for those least able to pay, the same law also authorized a state program to help low-income households with their water bills. Unfortunately, that program has not been funded and, as of now, exists only “on paper.”

Progress is being made, but it is not meeting the scale of the problem. Lead pipes pose a significant public health threat. Waiting will only exacerbate the issue. Americans support clean drinking water now -- we need strong leadership to get it done.   

About the Authors

Angela Guyadeen

Director, Safe Water Initiative

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